Electronic greetings gain traction

Traditional greeting cards are still the preferred way to send holiday cheer, but electronic cards are gaining this year. Although the Greeting Card Association says 20 paper cards are sent for every e-card, online card volume is soaring.

One reason: Just hours before Christmas, you still have time to send e-cards.

Another: Most are free. And many are funny and interactive. Their subjects include elf tossing (www.americangreetings.com), reindeer arm wrestling (www.reindeerarmwrestling.com) and "elfamorphosis" — a photograph of a friend's face goes onto a dancing elf (www.elfyourself.com).

"Our e-card section is very popular, because people are looking for quality cards that are free," says Allegra Burnette of the Museum of Modern Art (www.moma.org/ecards). She says volume is up 10% so far this month compared with the same period last year.

American Greetings has seen its e-card volume rise 9% to 41 million so far this holiday season, says spokeswoman Megan Ferington.

"People are looking for an option that uses no paper and is instant," says Ilan Shamir of Your True Nature (www.treegreetings.com). Recipients of his e-cards, which cost $9 to $10, get a tree planted in their honor. "We've planted over 10,000 trees," he says.

E-cards are popular with young people, says Patrick Holland of IAC's My Fun Cards (www.christmas-funcards.com). He says 61% more of his e-cards have been sent so far this month compared with last year. He says they aren't replacing paper cards but are sent as an additional hello or to a different set of friends.

Paper sales have held steady for the past five years, says Barbara Miller, spokeswoman for the Greeting Card Association.

"They're very different animals," Miller says. She calls e-cards casual, fun and spontaneous and says paper ones are more personal and sentimental.

"When it matters, it's mailed. You don't put an e-mail on your refrigerator," says Joanne Veto of the U.S. Postal Service. She says the average American household mailed 26 holiday cards in 2006, up from 21 in 2004 and 18 in 2002. "People are holding onto tradition."

People need to be careful, says Nick Newman, computer crimes specialist for the National White Collar Crime Center in Richmond, Va. He says spammers send e-cards to invade computers, spread viruses and obtain personal information. He urges recipients not to open cards that are generic or contain misspellings. He says scams spike around the holidays.